October 1, 2011 archive

California’s County Jails Brace for an Influx of Criminals


An inmate talks on a phone in Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A.

I cannot see how this will end well.

Local officials across California are bracing to manage more parolees and nonviolent felons as a new law goes into effect Saturday requiring them to take on what had long been a state responsibility.

The change is a result of budget pressures and a U.S. Supreme Court decision that required the state to lower its prison population by 30,000 inmates due to overcrowding.

Under the new law, prisoners who commit nonviolent and non-sex-related crimes, such as low-level drug offenders or thieves, will be kept in county jails instead of going to state facilities. And, when released, those prisoners will be left for county probation officials to monitor.Los Angeles County supervisors have bemoaned the change, saying it could lead to a surge in crime and lawsuits. Money for the added work will be provided by the state but only for nine months, although Gov. Jerry Brown and others are calling for a guaranteed source of funding in the future.

“It is actually a reckless and pathetic shirking of the state’s responsibility to its citizens,” Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said in a statement.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has also criticized the plan because he believes it will increase crime and lead judges to impose shorter sentences for criminals because they know the county already has overcrowded jails.

The county will not experience a large increase in prisoners or parolees at first. There will be about 600 new inmates at the end of October, according to estimates from state officials. County probation officials say they could have up to 120 new parolees to oversee by Monday in addition to their 50,000 other clients.

But those numbers should increase steadily. Four years from now, county sheriffs could have to find space for more than 8,300 new inmates each year, according to state officials, although some of those could be sent to drug rehabilitation centers or put under house arrest.The county’s Probation Department could eventually have up to 9,000 additional cases and may hire up to 50 more employees to deal with the new parolees, according to Reaver Bingham, a deputy probation chief.

Jerry Brown and the Democrat controlled Legislature have been unable or unwilling to make the cuts necessary in the state budget. Instead, they have used rosy scenarios in predicting state revenues and have shifted responsibilities to the counties – without fully funding them.

Judges will either sentence criminals to shorter sentences because of the county jail crowding which will be exacerbated by this shift or the inmates will just be released early – ready and willing to commit additional crimes.

As I continue to say, it will only take a few egregious cases of an early release prisoner committing a heinous crime and the state may abandon this program.

But, then that leaves more of a state budget morass.

Brown and the California Legislature will have to make some hard choices in the next six months.